Is the starting point for functional fluency a list of the right core words? Photo by acscom from freeImages.com

300 Words for Functional Fluency : Miss Swanson’s Elucidating Experiment

Decrepit, dusty old language learning books from bygone days are a guilty pleasure of mine. And sometimes, the most obscure, long-forgotten tomes throw up some shining treasures. Leafing through one such volume this week week, I stumbled across a fascinating gem of a tip that promises a helpful shortcut to functional fluency in a language.

The book in question – George McLennan’s “Scots Gaelic – A Brief Introduction – is not one of the oldest I’ve taken a ramble through, seeing its first impression in 1987. But it contains a curious factoid that served as the basis for a whole chapter on essential vocabulary. Let’s join Mr McLennan, and dive into the strange and curious world of the mysterious Miss Elaine Swanson.

Elaine Swanson and the 300 words

Swanson, explains McLennan, was “director of the New York Language Institute” around the 1930s. Now, her existence may well be apocryphal, as I am yet to find any modern reference to her – or the New York Language Institute – online or otherwise. But this mythical Miss Swanson is noted for one particular and exciting theory. She posited that a spoken vocabulary of just 300 words will suffice to get by in a language.

Being a thoroughly practical kind of person, and seeking empirical proof, she took it upon herself to attempt this feat in English for the duration of a whole three months. Apart from undoubtedly bemusing and irritating friends, relatives and colleagues, this exercise allowed her to compile a list of those core 300 words that represent a level of functional fluency.

Thanks to McLennan’s unearthing of her story, we too can benefit from the fruits of that hard work.

Functional fluency list

Here, arranged by the parts of speech. Clearly, a huge nod goes in George McLennan’s direction for printing this list with Gaelic translations in his book. Otherwise, Miss Swanson’s experiment might have been lost forever.

The final list actually comes in at a little under 300 words. Bear in mind that not every language will match up with these English terms exactly, so it will need a little adapting for other languages. McLennan notes that Gaelic, for example, has no single word for no – instead, this is paraphrased.

And one more note before we begin: some categories and inclusions might seem a little eccentric or unusual. Remember that this list was made in and for a very certain place and a very certain time. It manages to be fairly general, but will need some personalisation!

Miss Elaine Swanson’s Core Vocabulary

Prepositions

at, after, for, from, in, on, to, with

Conjunctions

and, or, if, but, so, that

Pronouns

I, he/she, you

Possessives

my, your, their

Interjections

hello, goodbye, oh!

Articles

the

Nature

fire, light, sun

Business

I assume that Mr McLennan has changed the currency words here for a British audience.

bank, pound, penny, money, office, manager, show, size, shop, trouble, way

Travel

boat, car, country, hotel, left, place, right, station, street, ticket, town, train

Objects

bag, book, letter, telephone, thing, story, word, picture, nothing

Days of the Week

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Modifiers

The original list uses “modifiers” as a kind of catch-all for anything descriptive, making this a mixed bag!

again, all, any, big, clean, cold, correct, down, easy, every, expensive, good, happy, here, how?, little, long, many, more, married, much, new, nice, no, not, now, old, one, other, piece, ready, same, slow, some, sorry, that, there, this, too, also, up, warm, very, well, what?, when?, where?, who?, why?

Food

Miss Swanson could almost be the original author of Duolingo’s “Food” topics…

bread, butter, sweets, coffee, egg, fruit, meat, milk, salt, sugar, vegetables, water

Time

day, evening, hour, minute, month, morning, night, time, today, tonight, tomorrow, week, yesterday

House

bath, floor, house, key, room, table

People

boy, brother, doctor, father, friend, girl, man, men, Miss, mother, Mr, Mrs, name, policeman, sister, woman, women

Clothes

cloth, clothes, coat, dress, hat, shoes, stockings, trousers

Colours

black, blue, green, red, white

Were there no yellow things in Miss Swanson’s world?

Verbs (and auxiliaries)

will, won’t, ask, be (am, are, is, was, were), can/can’t/could, come/came, do/does/don’t/did, eat/ate, excuse, gain, get/got, give, go/went, have/has/had, help, know/knew, learn, like, make/made, must, please, put, read, say/said, see/saw, sent, sit/sat, sleep/slept, smoke, start, stop, take/took, thank, think/thought, understand/understood, use, want, work, write/wrote

A critical eye

Evaluating the list for its practicality, the omissions are often more noteworthy than the generally helpful inclusions. Indeed, I end up with more questions than answers. Why no we or they in the pronoun section, for example? One English word frequency list places we above both he and she, so this might seem like something that needs tweaking. And where is the handy it, which sits firmly in the top ten most common English words in the same frequency table?

If frequency word lists were available (presumably Miss Swanson would have had access to these as director of a linguistic institute), why did she not use these to compile a core vocabulary? That said, this was a personal experiment, and – it is fair to say – probably not exactingly scientific. The aim of fluency was on the terms of the author’s everyday, not a one-size-fits-all average person.

Elsewhere, some of the collapsed categories seem tailored quite specifically to English. We can only assume that the inclusion of possessive their is the gender-neutral one to cover he/she more economically with a single word.

Window on a world

A particularly fascinating characteristic of the list is the choice of present/past verb pairs. Only certain past tenses are included (knew, slept etc.), while others verbs are given only in the present / infinitive form. Presumably the choice relates to the kind of polite, daily conversations the protagonist was trying to replicate during the experiment. Again, this fits with a definition of fluency as a working knowledge of language for the protagonist’s everyday – not everyone else’s. On a related note, it might be quite shocking to note the inclusion of the verb ‘smoke’ these days. Of course, such observations are part of the charm of finding personal vocabulary lists like these: their quirkily subjective nature.

Other initial observations relate to the economy of some of the lower-frequency type of vocabulary. You might wonder, like I did, why some terms are included when they might be creatively paraphrased using other items on the list. Personally, I question why “sun” is there, when “big light”, accompanied by pointing at the sky, would do. Slightly paleolithic, admittedly. Miss Swanson sounds much more civilised than that.

Pidgin English

As a guide to speaking a language, the list is clearly missing something. In particular, her conception of vocabulary is of a set of discrete, individual blocks, without any comprehensive reference to the glue holding them together in speech. There are no grammar rules implied in this list method beyond the few verb tense pairs, a couple of declined verb forms (was, does etc.) and the probably unnecessary inclusion of the definite article.

You can get away without grammar, of course, in effect using the vocabulary with your own logic to create a kind of pidgin. Will that make for ‘good’ French, German, Spanish and so on? No, go the purists. But will it be communicative if you need a basic core fast? Absolutely!

Verbs for lift-off

Miss Swanson does give a nod to a certain kind of sentence glue, however. One of the most striking things about this core vocabulary is the preponderance of verbs. They make up a considerable portion of the magic 300. And with good reason: this super-category of words does a colossal amount of heavy lifting in terms of intention and meaning in a sentence.

Now, I’ve always championed the verb as a key fluency factor. In fact, you can just call me the Verb Guy, since I can’t get enough of them (I write apps to drill them in my spare time!). Miss Swanson clearly spotted the communicative power of verbs, and focusing on verb tricks like employing modal sentence frames can really boost your conversational power, too.

A pinch of salt (and a spoonful of sugar)

So there you have it: a recipe for getting by on just a handful of words. Serve with a dollop of gloriously eccentric sugar and a medium-sized pinch of salt.

But even if the Magic 300 needs some tweaking to our individual circumstances, it strikes me that Miss Swanson was most definitely onto something. Her approach lights a pathway towards communicating – fast – in any language. Beyond that, the highly personal, practical nature of her list makes for a charming and intriguing window onto the world of someone in love with language and words. There is something  very familiar about Miss Swanson that is reflected in all of us linguaphiles.

This long-forgotten experiment attracts the extreme linguist in me, I must admit. If functional fluency can be acquired from a carefully selected core vocabulary, then maybe it is that simple to add a third, fourth, fifth language – and the rest!

What would your 300 look like? Could you get away with fewer than 300 words? What would you add or replace to Miss Swanson and Mr McLennan’s lists? And of the languages you know a little of, how many have you reached Swanson’s functional fluency in? Let us know in the comments!

A computer screen (image from freeimages.com)

Vocabulary cross-platforming : make your DIY language learning data work harder

A major feature of language learning in the digital world is the abundance of tools for building and testing your own vocabulary banks. Anki, Quizlet, Educandy, StudyBlue, Cram… There are all sorts of platforms for collecting and drilling the words and phrases you study. And pretty much all of them have a free tier, making these tools more accessible than ever.

But what most of these platforms share is an often overlooked feature that adds a little bit of power to your wordbank building. It is the facility to export and import vocabulary data in a standardised, cross-platform format.

The biggest benefit of this is the ability to create your word lists just once, then work with them on multiple sites or apps. So why is that so useful?

Variety in learning

For one thing, variety is particularly important for maintaining a healthy learning regime. Taking multiple approaches avoids tying your new knowledge to one particular setting, and falling foul of the context effect. When you make use of several testing platforms, you discourage the brain from binding words and phrases to unrelated cues like layout, colours, font, and even the environment you regularly use the app in.

Not only that: using the same platform all the time can just get dull. And if there is one demotivator you need to avoid, it is boredom. Mix it up and keep it fresh!

Finding perfection in the mix

No platform is perfect. Some do things better than others. Others do things that are unique and not offered elsewhere. Sticking to one single tool for your vocabulary practice is certainly not making the most of the wealth of opportunity on offer.

As an example, Quizlet and Cram offer a couple of fun, arcade-style games. These make a nice change from the familiar, text-based drills of many apps. Additionally, Quizlet has a clean, no-nonsense test activity, which combines four types of activity across twenty random items in your list. It’s snappy and random enough to stretch you with longer vocabulary lists. And then again, none of them really beats the interval-based flashcard testing of Anki.

No single app has it all – ensure that you get it all by cross-platforming.

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling with Quizlet's Gravity

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling
with Quizlet’s Gravity game

Ownership of vocabulary

I’m a big fan of creating a sense of ownership over your own vocabulary to increase motivation. Those words and phrases are a map of your own, very personal journey through the language. Be proud of them! Careful curation of a master list for use across sites can help foster that sense of pride.

Exporting your data from services that you use puts it in your hands. You can use it elsewhere, or even alter it directly if you like – it is no longer bound to a third-party service.

Getting at your data

Of course, you actually need to get at your data to enjoy all of this.

The first step is to locate the import / export features of your tool of choice. In Anki, for example, the relevant options are in the File menu. In Quizlet, you will find export in the settings menu for each of your question lists; import options, however, appear when you go to create a new list. If in doubt, search for import / export on the FAQ or help pages of your chosen service.

Once located, the standard format you need may be labelled differently from app to app. Generally, comma-separated, plain text values are the most compatible across platforms. In Anki, this equates to selecting Notes in Plain Text (*.txt). To maximise compatibility further, uncheck any extra options, such as tags or media references in the Anki example blow.

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

The text-only file created should contain all your vocabulary data, but be simple and stripped down enough to import into most sites. Comma-separated files can even be opened and edited in spreadsheet software like Excel and Sheets.

As a handy side-effect, they also double as emergency backups of your data if you store them safely elsewhere. Accidentally deleted your list? Or has the site you were using disappeared? No problem. You have your vocabulary safely squirreled away.

Choose your master

It is also crucial to choose your master. Don’t fret – your personal autonomy is safe! It is a master app or platform that you need to decide on.

Select a single platform that you use as your main repository – ideally the one you are most comfortable list-building with. You can then export from that into other services. This keeps things simple: any new vocabulary will always go into your master list, and you will avoid ending up with discrepancies across platforms.

I use Anki as my master list, chiefly since it allows for tagging entries with keywords, making your data queryable. For example, it is a cinch to run off sublists of vocabulary based on topic tags for various purposes. Anki’s Browse window gives easy access to these quite powerful list management features, and it operates very much like a database. Anki is also extensible with modules that enable greater multimedia control, such as this add-on for interfacing with other language learning web services to enhance your notes.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

That said, you can even use spreadsheet software to manage your master list as mentioned above. Administering your vocabulary in a ‘raw’ format like this can increase your sense of ownership over it, too.

Don’t find yourself limited to a single vocabulary management platform. Own your data and make it work!

Are you making free resources work for you? Get the most of out of that wealth of apps on offer. Cross-platform your vocabulary!

Finnish in Finland : the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki

Finnish in seven days? Express language projects and learning how to learn

How much of a new foreign language can we learn in just seven days? It’s a tempting question that captures our imagination and challenges our mettle as polyglots. And it’s one I set out to answer with Finnish, as I prepared for a whistle stop three-day visit to lovely Helsinki this week.

For practical purposes, my knowledge of Finnish was almost nothing as I approached the seven-days-and-counting mark to my trip.  But as enthusiastic, language-loving polyglots, we are never really starting from scratch. We have a full tank of pre-knowledge to get us started – not necessarily on those specific languages we set out to study, but more general techniques for learning languages. And, in many ways, taking on time-limited language projects like this is an excellent way to take stock of our wider language learning approaches.

I’ve started, so I’ll… Finnish

One caveat: I did have a little pre-knowledge of Finnish itself, but not much. My exposure to this wonderful language of fifteen grammatical cases (!) has been limited. I have a little more experience of Helsinki itself, and this was my third trip here.

My last Finnish sojourn was a two-week working holiday to Helsinki, covering the Eurovision Song Contest 2007 for the fansite esctoday.com (never one for conformity to the norm). Dazzled by the glitz of the event, I barely made it past the first chapter of Teach Yourself Finnish before the stage lights won my attention. Two weeks and barely a handful of words learnt… I had some catching up to do in order to live down that polyglot fail!

So, beyond hyvää päivää (good day), kiitos (thanks) and a clutch of Eurovision song titles, I could barely remember a thing. I still had that old, battered Teach Yourself book, which I dug out in readiness. How would I fare third time round in Finland?

Time management

First things first: we have to make time for last-minute learning. To this end, I have always been a fan of time management apps and digital techniques for organising our lives. I already use Evernote to plan my productivity week, so it was a simple case of devising a plan and adding it to my weekly list of tactics. Since I already had Teach Yourself Finnish, I decided to use this as my primary course material. I would blitz through a chapter a day in order to reach chapter seven by the day of my flight.

Of course, no recipe is perfect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that fairly high expectation of myself, I could not quite manage to stick rigidly to the plan. In fact, I only just managed to break into chapter four before I was enjoying my Finnair blueberry juice. But just as important as your plan is the ability to treat it flexibly around life’s ebb and flow. And by tracking your language tasks using tools like Evernote, you can still achieve the satisfaction of seeing progress, even when the everyday gets in the way.

Material world

My book-based course was the bedrock, but not the only route I used to bolstering my Finnish. You see, there is a particularly helpful side-benefit of returning to languages previously attempted and ‘failed’. It opens the way to a realisation of how your learning approaches have become more creative and effective than the bare books many of us inevitably started with.

My own big win is a much more active consumption of new vocabulary compared to my early beginnings as a language learner. Now, as I work through material, I use a number of resources to work on the vocabulary and engage with it. Principally, I grow my own Anki decks of words and phrases to learn and practise from – a technique that really helps give a sense of ownership over the word lists. This one change by itself has made a huge difference in vocab retention compared to my previous, floundering attempts at Finnish.

Multimodal approach

What it boils down to is a much more multimodal approach to learning today. Where once the norm was a book (and accompanying audio tracks, if you forked out the extra cash), there are now multiple, parallel resources across the range of skills. Why settle for one route to knowledge, when we can take advantage of multiple streams at once? Especially when so much is now available online, including from national broadcasters like Finland’s YLE (attempting to read news headlines is a favourite language task of mine).

Crucially, working through information in a number of ways helps beat the context effect – the inflexibility of recall that results from seeing material in the same, single setting without variation. The multimodal approach makes for flexible language knowledge, better primed for the unpredictable. And so I proceeded, not just sticking to Anki, but importing my word lists into Quizlet and Educandy, practising my Finnish vocab in every game setting available to me.

Practising the Finnish language using the activity creator website Educandy.com

Practising Finnish vocabulary exported from Anki using the activity creator website Educandy.com

It also helps if you can creatively dovetail your language project into your day-to-day. I work in language app development, and curate a series of verb reference and drill apps. I used the exposure to this new language to start a brand new Finnish version of the app, learning a lot of new verbs in the process.

Music to my ears

Ultimately, the pinnacle of multimodality for me is the crossover between foreign languages and music. Finland has a particularly rich and varied Eurovision tradition (sadly not reflected in many of its contest results!). Thanks to the excellent resource Diggiloo Thrush, the lyrics of all of these pop gems are available to read and learn online. Music to the ears of a language-loving Eurovision fan.

Playing these tunes at my piano, attempting to sing along with the lyrics, was more than just a vocab exercise. Warbling along to your favourite foreign language songs is more about practising sounds out loud, having fun with the way they emerge from your own mouth.

That said, interrogating song lyrics with a dictionary is a lexical adventure all on its own. Is there a stand-out, ear worm lyric in one of your favourites? For me, one particularly catchy lyrical moment crops up in Ami Aspelund’s Fantasiaa of 1983. That punchy, initial Kuka hän on? (Who is s/he?) sticks in the mind. Thanks to her, I will never forget that kuka means ‘who’!

Obviously, there is no need to be a Eurovision fan for this (despite my protestations). Spotify offers a wealth of world music, and a quick lyrics search on Google will throw up the words to almost anything, anywhere.

Spotting the shortfalls

As well as all the upsides, Express language learning can quickly reveal the shortcomings of platforms and techniques. Learning under time pressure can shed light on the limitations of our tools (and brains). And this is no bad thing: by knowing where these potholes are, we can plan to circumnavigate them in our future projects.

For one thing, I realised that Teach Yourself books (as well as other traditional book-based courses) often off with less than immediately handy vocab for a short trip. That can seem a bit topsy-turvy. For example,I ended up learning how to introduce myself before asking for a coffee, which I had to look up when I was already in Helsinki.

The antidote? Next time, I might include phrasebooks as source material, and work on purposefully learning ‘holiday situation’ vocabulary alongside thematic course book chapters. Polyglot celeb Benny Lewis has been advocating this approach for years, and it seems like a good beginner’s strategy.

Anki workarounds

Additionally, it became clear that Anki, on its default setting, feeds through new vocabulary far too slowly for quick projects. I had reached chapter three of my course book and already added nearly 300 words. But at the ten-per-day trickle, I was never going to have practised them all by the time my  flight came around.

You can adjust this, but it is probably not advisable – our brains can only retain so much new material, and it can be counterproductive to push them beyond what their most efficient comfort zones.

So what to do instead? One solution I came up with was not to add every single lexeme, but to focus on adding the words I would find most useful on my trip. From the section on nationality I decided to keep englantilainen (English person) and ditch venäläinen (Russian person), ranskalainen (French person) and so on. A sharp focus is the order of the day with ‘in seven days’ projects.

With Anki, you must also prioritise actively the order you tackle your decks in. If your express language is part of a subdeck, it will share its new card quota with its sibling decks. Clear your other decks first, and Anki will not offer any of your new language up for learning for the rest of the day. So, for a week, Finnish had to be my first port of call when opening Anki.

Multiple language decks in Anki

Multiple language decks in Anki. Sibling decks share their new card quota, so your most pressing projects (like my express Finnish) should be tackled first.

Sometimes, adaptation might not be possible. Namely, the language might simply be absent on your favourite platforms. There is little to do about that, except look elsewhere – or wait and hope. I especially regretted the lack of a Finnish course on my current favourite platform, Duolingo. But Finnish is in the pipeline for the future, which will come in handy if (when!) I return to the language.

Boots on the ground

Remember, the start of your trip is not the end. However much you learn before the trip, the learning continues in a much more exciting, active vein on location. Suddenly, vocabulary is learnt in context, and with immediate relevance. Once in Finland, I started soaking up new words like olut (beer), maito (milk) and suola (salt). Naturally, these have gone straight into my Anki decks. Those words are now mine!

Increase that sense of ownership by recording all those new items in the full colour of multimedia. Images, videos, audio clips of friendly locals speaking (if you dare) are all par for the course. I now have a whole bank of food packaging photos after just a couple of days!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

Kiitos! Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

And of course, being on the move abroad, there is always something else to learn just around the corner. The incorrigible linguist that I am, another nearby language is already in my sights; I might have to sneak a little Estonian in there too, for a quick hop across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn.

Finnish in seven days? What about Estonian in seven hours? 

Irish countryside (photo by Brian Lary, freeimages.com)

Language immersion, Irish style : learning tips from a bilingual state

It feels like I’ve been in Ireland rather a lot, lately. It’s partly due to my fairly late discovery that there is this beautiful, fascinating country to explore only a hop away from my own. But a large part of the pull is undoubtedly the Irish language, which has worked its magic on me recently.

But the magic of Irish is not simply in the beauty of the words and phrases, or the way it seems so fresh and exotic compared to the other European languages I know. It is in the way that Irish is woven into every aspect of life in Éire.

It is simply inescapable.

Irish is everywhere

Although Irish has short of just 150,00 first language speakers, the ubiquity of the language on the street signs and paraphernalia of officialdom in Ireland makes it impossible not to soak up some Gaeilge if you spend any time there.

Road signs are bilingual – and set to become even more so. The nomenclature of government and state departments is almost entirely in Irish. So are the names of many political parties. Add to that the presence of Irish-language media and common Irish words for socialising in English, like sláinte (health / cheers!), and you have the perfect ingredients for an almost imperceptible daily immersion in the language.

The benefits are twofold. If you grew up in Ireland, you are reminded on a daily basis of the Irish you learnt at school. It is impossible to forget what you once learnt! And as a visitor, you see the same words pop up time and again, with a regularity that makes them start to stick.

Surely there is a lesson in there somewhere for all of us linguists, whatever language we study.

Irish inspiration for your own language learning

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun, and this handy language everywhere immersion effect of the bilingual Irish state is no new trick. It is a technique employed, for example, by the excellent in 10 minutes series of textbooks. Each of these colourful beginner guides features pages of sticky labels to affix to objects in your home. Bumping into the words for bed, cupboard, lamp and more is a fun and effective way to learn and reinforce your core vocab.

Now, you don’t have to buy commercial versions of labels to accent your environment with. A sheet of blank labels or post-its and a pen are more than enough to get started. Keep an eye on those expensive furnishings – don’t go ruining the best chair with adhesive vandalism. But be creative: colour-code, find innovative ways to represent grammatical info, add images if they are helpful. If you study more than one foreign language, make your signs as polyglot as you are.

And why stop at labels? You can make your own temporary signs and notices using a wipe-clean whiteboard. Write on your to-do notes and shopping lists in the target language. And if you live with non-linguists, then take a leaf out of the Irish playbook: make them bilingual. Your housemates might even start to pick up a few words.

Although we can’t make our home towns and cities bilingual, we can take a leaf out of Ireland’s book* and make our homes multilingual. Ádh mór ort / good luck!

* Or that of Scotland or Wales!

Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from freeimages.com)

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!

A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from freeimages.com)

Five Ways to Stick to Language Learning Resolutions

We are well into the New Year now, and – if you are like me – you probably have a list of language learning resolutions as long as your arm. But doesn’t cold, damp January feel like the longest and hardest month for keeping to them? It can seem far too easy to get discouraged.

Never fear: here are some sure-fire tips for staying on track (or getting back onto it). 2019, we are coming for you!

Set reminders

Set your watch for timely language learning

If it’s a case of simply not remembering to stick to your routines, you can employ a little digital help. Setting training reminders on your devices is one of the easiest ways to enforce a new routine and begin habit-building.

My to-do and reminder app of choice is Wunderlist, which is both free, and goes far beyond a simple reminders app. For instance, you can subdivide your lists of tasks into separate sections, like simply ‘Languages’, or even one for each of your languages. It also allows for repeated tasks, which are perfect for daily and weekly learning tactics. Ticking these off regularly creates a real sense of ongoing achievement.

If you are a fan of Evernote (a fantastic, yet unsung hero of language learning!), you can use its reminder feature to similar effect. I use Evernote for longer-term planning, and setting reminders for regular reviews of planning documents is a resolution-saver.

Also worth checking out are Coach.me, Streaks and, of course, your plain old smartphone to-do / calendar apps. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best.

Tie your language learning to other habits

Our lives are already complex webs of routine and habit. Leverage that by linking your new, desired behaviours into what you already do.

Jogging is a routine you can easily tie new language learning habits to. (Image from freeimages.com)

Regular walk? Use that to listen to target language material like podcasts. Regular commute? Make sure you have plenty of foreign language Netflix downloaded for offline viewing. Spare minutes after getting ready for work? Do your 5-10 minutes of Anki or Duolingo.

You can find multiple points where your existing habits can anchor your new ones, too. With apps, taking advantage of a variety of platforms gives you multiple entry points in your daily routine. I use the Anki app on my bus and train journeys, but open up the desktop app for a quick revise before I start work at my desk.

If apps feature heavily in your language learning life, try chaining them. Piggy-back your new platforms on the back of an already well-established one. Already doing 5-10 minutes of Duolingo every day? Try coupling your Verb Blitz or Memrise right onto the tail end of that.

Enlist help

Strength in numbers - enlist the help of others in your language learning resolutions. (Image from freeimages.com)

Strength in numbers!

Personal goals shouldn’t be a lonely business. Do you have friends or relatives who can lend a hand? A supportive partner to remind you to do your daily Anki every day could work wonders! Tell them how much it means to you to succeed in your language learning goals. Getting them on board will be an invaluable source of encouragement.

A popular concept in peer coaching is the accountability partner. This is a friend or colleague you regularly meet up with to compare progress on goals. Each participant’s goals can be quite disparate, as the function of the accountability partner is to act as a sounding board and motivator. All you need is someone else who is also working on self-improvement goals for 2019.

You can also help others to learn while helping your own goals along, too. We learn, and consolidate previous learning, through teaching. Even sharing an overview of recent progress with others can help you to reflect critically on your own learning. With that in mind, why not commit to sharing progress in your resolutions with your nearest and dearest?

It’s also worth mentioning the immense value a professional coach can offer, if you really want to bring in the cavalry. I circumnavigated some sticky learning impasses in 2018 thanks to working on my goals with a coach.

Get right back on that horse!

Controversial fact: the “New Year” in “New Year’s Resolutions” is the least important part of all!

The truth is that New Year’s Resolutions are lent a bit of artificial magic by dint of that special date of 1st January.

If you have slipped up, there is no need to write off your goals until the next year. The best time to start again is always now. As with a diet, saying “I’ll be good from tomorrow” is a delay tactic that you should never fall for.

It might help to regauge how you divide up your blocks of time. Let’s face it: an entire year is a very long stretch for goal planning. Instead, productivity writer Brian Moran suggests a 12-week cycle, which has worked a treat for me.

Don’t burn out too soon

Finally, make sure to keep yourself mentally and physically in kilter. Pushing yourself too hard means burning out, or worse, coming to resent your own resolutions.

Learning to build pace and pause into your routine is as important a skill as fully-fledged language learning work. Too much rigidity can stifle the most enthusiastic learner – aim for self-kindness by allowing for fluidity in your plan.

Regular audits of your progress help, too. It may be that you set the bar too high for January 1st. Be honest with yourself. Can you scale back slightly before stepping up again later? Better to do that, than give up completely.

A recent example from my own 2019 challenges illustrates the need to be flexible, and revisit / reformulate resolutions on a regular basis. One ambitious target I set myself was to make at least one overseas trip a month to practise my languages. Now, that might sound difficult, but it is quite possible on a budget; there are a number of tools to source cheap flight and hotel dates. But, alas, at the mercy of dynamic travel pricing, it looked like I might miss that target in the very first month.

Not to worry: I’ve reformulated that goal as: make trips to at least 12 different overseas destinations in 2019. Resolution rescued!

Whatever your goals for 2019, let these guiding principles keep you on track for language learning success. Here’s to a fruitful twelve months… and beyond!

Coaching and languages: the travelling partner you need?

Language learners are used to working with others. These tend to be language specialists: teachers, conversation exchange partners or fellow students. But support in learning languages does not have to be in the target language. Not convinced? Well recently, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a coach on achieving my self-set language goals. Through coaching, I’ve been able to focus on improving how I learn, rather than just cramming content. And I’m completely sold on the usefulness of it to your learning toolkit.

It helps to know that I’m in good company. Multilingual mogul Benny Lewis has sung the praises of coaching repeatedly. In particular, he recommends the free app Coach.me, and is an active member of the platform’s forum and goal-sharing community. I’ve used the app myself, and it is wonderfully simple. Even if you only take advantage of the daily goal reminders, it can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

You can take this a step further, though, and seek out a real-life, human coach to work with. This can be face-to-face, or, more likely these days, online via Skype or similar. For the past month, I’ve been scheduling weekly slots with a coach online. The experience has been nothing but positive, and I’m excited to share how the process can unstick even the stickiest, most disorganised linguist!

Search for the hero inside yourself

Coaching builds on the principle that, in many cases, the answers are already inside ourselves. They just need coaxing out. Avril, my coach, puts this succinctly: she is my tour guide. She shows me around and points things out that I might miss. But the landscape is one of my own making.

How can we not know ourselves, and how can a coach help bridge the gap? The problem is that we are all embedded in busy, often chaotic lives of overlapping priorities.

Coaching in the eyes of a coach

Maybe it’s best to let a coaching expert do the talking here. Cameron Murdoch, experienced coach and mentor at Coaching Studio, puts it like this:

Coaching is often about being challenged by the coach by them using powerful questions. Quite often you have the answer yourself, but it needs another person to draw it out.

The coach also acts as an accountability partner type figure so you set targets but they make sure you achieve them. They help you also if you hit a brick wall and help you tackle issues that develop that could stop you. They also help celebrate achievement as well as walk through problems.

It’s a way of opening up the mind to push you out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone – but making sure you don’t step into the panic zone. They push you just enough to learn, but not to panic.

Quite simply, a coaching partner can push you where you won’t push yourself, and help you see things when you are too close to the issues to see them yourself.

Talking with Avril recently, we likened this to a pile of tangled wool of difference colours. A coach can help you to pick out strands of the same colour, and place them neatly on their own to analyse and optimise. Instantly, you then see what needs doing. In this way, a coach lifts your goal-oriented activity out of the chaos and makes it visible; and that makes it so much more manageable.

Plan of action

For me, a key ‘obvious’ was simply organising my time better.

I instinctively knew that one key to making my learning more systematic would be to use calendar blocking. In fact, it was so ‘obvious’, that I’d even written an article about it. But, somehow, your own advice can be the hardest to put into practice.

Instead of learning bits and pieces here and there, I agreed with my coach to allocate half- or full-hour slots of time where I could sit down and focus entirely on a chapter of a course book, or active reading of a news article.

What helps keep you on the straight and narrow is a sense of accountability. These are not empty promises I’ve made myself. Rather, every week, I have to report how I’m getting on to someone who is following me along the road. The effect is surprisingly motivating!

Finding a coaching partner

Apps like Coach.me include an option to contract with a human coach through the app. You can do a simple Google search for coaches too, although be aware that the kind of coaching I’m talking about here is not life coaching, and it seems that Google tends to favour those results above other goal-oriented coaching services.

On a personal level, I can recommend checking out Cameron Murdoch as a coach or source of pointers and other coach recommendations. He’s quite an inspirational guy for many reasons; you’ll see some of these on his LinkedIn profile.

Be a guinea pig

However, you might well know somebody working towards a coaching qualification. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a set of sessions as their guinea pig, that’s a superb opportunity.

Even if that’s not an option, I believe that the standard hourly rate (anything from £75 upwards depending on the coach’s experience) is well worth it if it unlocks a higher tier of learning.

Typically, you will also specify a finite block of coaching time – say, ten sessions – so, unlike fitness training, for example, there is an end point in sight. This helps in budgeting, especially if you’re not keen on the idea of another outgoing bill / subscription ad infinitum. Of course, you might choose to carry on a coaching relationship if you think you need the helping hand!

I’m still travelling my coaching journey, and have a number of sessions to go. But already, I can see its huge value as a language learner. Whether through an app service, or with a real-life human being, give coaching a try: it might just set you right back on track with your languages.

Data laser

Google Sheets magic tricks for language learners

The best language partners not only open your eyes to new words, but to new techniques. It is always the case with excellent iTalki teacher and polyglot friend Marcel Balzer, for example. Never short of fantastic tips, he recently shared a gem of a trick for language learning through the free, online spreadsheet software Google Sheets.

The magic happens thanks to the cross-pollination between Google Products, namely Sheets, and Google Translate. Using a simple formula, you can translate the text contents of one cell into another.

It is very easy to set up. Say you create two columns, A and B, headed German and English. In cell A2, you add a new German word you come across. In cell B2, you have the following formula:

=googletranslate(A2,"de","en")

As soon as the word is entered into the first cell, a handy quick translation will pop up in the second. You may recognise the short codes de and en as international abbreviations, which you can substitute for the languages you are learning. See this link for a full list of them.

You can be as creative with your pairings as you like; I’m currently experimenting with cross-translating vocabulary lists in Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. Great for filling gaps in a weaker language by referencing a stronger one!

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Google Sheets Combo power

Google Sheets has many more tricks up its sleeve for the linguist open to a bit of tech exploration, though. With some imagination, you can create some quite powerful learning applications by combining them.

You can, for example, join together the text in several cells to create a single line of text. For example, if you have “j’ai” in cell A2, and “mangé” in cell B2, in cell C2 you could add:

TEXTJOIN(" ",TRUE,A2,B2)

The TEXTJOIN method pulls together the text contents of cells, and requires a couple of arguments, or pieces of information. The first ” ” is a space in quotes, and tells TEXTJOIN what to place between the words it joins together. Here, I use spaces, but you could use hyphens, commas, or whatever else is appropriate. The TRUE simply tells TEXTJOIN to ignore any blank cells that contain no text – if you want them included, change this to false. Finally, there is a list of all the cells containing the content you want to join (A2, B2). This can be as long as you need.

This is useful for words and phrases on their own. But more usefully, I found, was to use this along with target language words to build URLs. To explain why, it might be useful to outline one of the main methods I use to mine for new vocabulary.

The vocab mining process

When I actively seek out and check new vocabulary, I have a step-by-step routine. This will start in one of two ways, depending on which direction I’m learning it in. Sometimes, for example, I will realise that there is a gap in my target language vocabulary by comparing it with my native and other languages. It’s important to actively interrogate your languages like this, always looking out for gaps. Alternatively, I will just come across new vocab already in the target language when I read or listen to podcasts.

Google Translate

Once I have a word to look up, I use dictionary resources (online and offline), as well as Google Translate, to find a translation. Of course, Google Translate comes with many caveats, being a very blunt instrument for linguists. As a former teacher, I feel the pain of anyone marking a piece of homework that has so obviously gone through the Google mangle. However, as a quick vocabulary look-up tool, it is hard to beat.

Wiktionary

Of course, you have to keep your wits about you when using it. And so comes the final step for me: Wiktionary. Wiktionary is a crowdsourced multilingual dictionary, full of detailed entries for countless words in a whole raft of languages. This includes multiple meanings, contextual examples and even detailed etymologies for many entries – all things that provide real hooks for the learner to understand and assimilate new lexical items.

By now, I should have a good overview of how the word fits into the target language. At this point, I will add it to Anki for learning and testing. The Anki entry may include brief usage notes from Wiktionary and other sources.

That’s a fairly simple procedure, but it does involve a bit of jumping around from site to site. However, if you look at the URLs of Wiktionary pages, they have a very regular form. For example:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/suigh#Irish

You can leverage this kind of regularity when automating tasks. But how?

Chain of command

Enter TEXTJOIN, combined with the power of Google Translate! The chain goes like this: with an English word in cell A2, an automatic translation (say, into Icelandic) pops up in cell B2. Cell C2 then takes the output in cell B2 and builds a link to the relevant Wiktionary page, which I can click to check the entry:

=TEXTJOIN("",TRUE,"https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/",B2,"#Icelandic")

This builds up a full link to a Wiktionary page referencing the word in B2, and the position on the page where the Icelandic entry appears (if it exists). Suddenly, it is a lot quicker and easier to perform my three-step vocab lookup.

Tip of the iceberg

There is a vast array of other methods available in Google Sheets. The above example is a fairly simple chain, but much more complex processes are certainly possible with a bit of creative play. They can be used in myriad ways, too. Google Sheets can be viewed by multiple users at the same time when shared, for example, and Marcel explains that he uses his along with his teacher during online lessons. New words are added to the sheet as they come up, and can be instantly cross-referenced.

Modest Marcel insists that the trick was not his invention, and merely came to him via another helpful polyglot colleague. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful for the inspiration, which has triggered hours of geekish exploration! I pass it on in the hope of helping more fellow linguaphiles in the same way. Harness the power of Google, and happy learning!

Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!